With the four-day harvest festival of Pongal emerging in January, precisely one month ago, so did the debate about jallikattu, a 2000-year-old sport typically celebrated on the third day of Pongal, referred to as Mattu Pongal, in which individuals try to latch on to the humps and horns of bulls in an effort to tame them, with gifts of money and gold tied to the sharpened horns of the animal.

The sport of jallikattu was banned when bulls were added in 2011 to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act which restricted animals performing for entertainment under the fear of animal abuse. In 2014, the Supreme Court, presented with evidence from the Animal Welfare Board of India with regard to the “torture and cruelty” endured by bulls during jallikattu fights, upheld the ban. On January 8, 2016, the Ministry of the Environment revoked the order to add bulls to the PCA Act and, by extension, legalized jallikattu. However, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the order in response to a petition issued by the Animal Welfare Board of India and PETA India, leading to protests in January 2016 statewide, with the World Youth Organization demanding a ban on PETA.

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Thousands of pro-jallikattu protesters at the Marina Beach. Credit: Gan13166 via Wikimedia Commons. 

By Gan13166 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55146270

However, when the debate on jallikattu was reignited this Pongal, so too were the protests, with much greater intensity. It began when hundreds of jallikattu supporters organized a rally at Chennai’s Marina Beach protesting the ban on jallikattu and calling for immediate change. 220 pro-jallikattu protestors at Madurai were detained one week later. In response, many more students gathered at the Marina Beach to protest, and many volunteer groups and individuals began protesting, leading to a push for an ordinance by representatives of the Tamil Nadu state government to repeal the ban on jallikattu. Soon, in the push for the ordinance to be signed by the President of India, 2 million people gathered at the Marina Beach in what was termed “Occupy Marina.” Most organizations in Tamil Nadu shut down in solidarity with the protesters. On January 23, with protesters refusing to leave, forceful evictions occurred. In response, the protesters engaged in arson and stone-pelting, using “petroleum bombs,” and torching police stations. The Tamil Nadu State Assembly passed a uninanimous bill legalizing jallikattu in Tamil Nadu temporarily.

These protests require us to answer tough questions. Is it justified for the police to forcibly evict protesters? Is democracy on the streets, or on the ballot box? Those are questions that require abstract, philosophical answers: ones that are too vague and abstract for ordinary debate. What is up for debate, however, is whether it is justified, in such a scenario, to pursue a sport that engages in animal exploitation. In this post, I’m going to argue against jallikattu — specifically, I’m going to provide my arguments against it, and refute some common arguments in favor of it.

The Case Against Jallikattu

Animal Cruelty

The first reason I oppose jallikattu is direct: it harms the bulls. A common claim among supporters of jallikattu denies any harm to animals caused by jallikattu. Consider this article, which suggests that that jallikattu is a “fair sport” in which “both human and animal are aware of the game,” and that regulation is sufficient to end animal abuse. All of that is nonsense, and is provably false. The idea that animals are “aware of the game” is obviously false. Animals can’t “consent” to doing something like that when the people initiate it. The fear displayed by bulls also demonstrates clearly that the bull doesn’t consent.

Regulation is insufficient simply because jallikattu is fundamentally abusive. It may not be as harmful as Spanish bullfighting — which, for the record, organizations such as PETA do fight — but it’s still pretty abusive. Inspections jointly conducted by PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India demonstrate that under regulated jallikattu, massive physical abuse takes place to incur the bulls to respond. In the arena, multiple people pounce on the bull, inducing massive psychological trauma, in which, according to PETA’s conclusions from the inspection, “the bulls become so frightened by the mob of men who participate that they slip, fall, run into barriers and traffic – and even jump off cliffs in their desperate attempts to escape – frequently leading to broken bones or death.”

Just a few days ago, three bulls fell into wells due to their fear. There’s also physical harm from the participants actually hitting the bulls, and even the weight of multiple participants together. Which means, even if abuse is “regulated,” the sport becomes fundamentally about harming the bull. Furthermore, the police themselves engage in abusing the bulls, which means they won’t enforce regulation — but they will enforce a blanket ban because it’s easy to prove that a jallikattu event happened. It’s hard to prove specific abuse.

The government should legislate to prevent animal cruelty. As I’ve already argued before, animals have rights. Since bulls are self-aware and are sentient, under a utilitarian framework, they ought to have rights. While it’s downright impossible to ban meat eating, for instance, and doing that would be demonstrably harmful to society, the only benefit from society is “entertainment.” Jallikattu is a directly harmful sport that should be illegal, as should other, similar sports, such as Kambala.

Edit 3/14/17: The claim that jallikattu as it is currently practiced does not follow the “real rules” of jallikattu — and that those real rules are humane — is ridiculous. First, that’s absolutely not the case, considering that these rural areas built the practice of jallikattu. Second, and more importantly, that doesn’t matter. Insofar as it involves even a single person holding on to the bull’s hump, the bull is going to panic. The sheer psychological trauma is what causes so many bulls to die in jallikattu games. Furthermore, these “real rules” aren’t going to be enforced, and I’ve already explained how a jallikattu ban solves.

Marginalization

Jallikattu is not merely a tradition that oppresses animals. It discriminates among humans as well — as alluded to in T. M. Krishna’s popular column on the issue. Jallikattu inadvertently perpetuates casteist and sexist marginalization. For instance, feminists have objected to the relegation of women to merely caregivers of bulls, while men are the only ones who actually “wrestle” the bulls — spreading notions of “masculinity” and sexism within rural communities.

Similarly, others have noted that jallikattu is casteist. Dalit activists decry jallikattu as divisive, because the sport is often exclusionary to members of “lower caste” individuals. The same article mentions that Tamil Nadu’s villages are often segregated on the basis of caste, and Dalit portions of villages, which are typically slums, have much more subdued jallikattu events. If there is an integrated event, Dalits are disproportionately pushed away to unpaid and less glamorous jobs, like “playing a percussion instrument to set the tone” and to “take care of the bulls” [quoted from the same article]. Other opinion articles have condemned jallikattu as sexist and casteist as well.

Rebuttal to Common Arguments

Proponents of jallikattu have consistently argued the same things: that jallikattu protects indigeneous breeds, that it is an integral part of Tamil culture, and that organizations such as PETA are somehow conspiracies to erode this culture. All of the arguments fail. I’ll address each of them here. Comment if you have anything else; I’ll respond to it.

Indigeneous Breeds

The argument that jallikattu protects indigeneous breeds is based on the idea that the bulls used for jallikattu are used to impregnate other cows, thus allowing for indigeneous breeds to be protected from extinction. This argument fails for three reasons.

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Zebu (Bos taurus indicus), one of the breeds used in jallikattu. Credit: Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons.

First, this impregnation can happen anyway. Farmers won’t get rid of cows if jallikattu is prevented since there’s no monetary benefit from jallikattu. These bulls aren’t going to be sold to slaughter. Second, “preserving indigeneous breeds” doesn’t benefit the bulls. The members of these breeds are just going to suffer and die. The only supposed benefit is from the milk of the cattle — which is fundamentally and inherently tied to animal exploitation. Third, the idea that jallikattu is the only way to preserve indigeneous breeds is preposterous. Economic and market support for cattle farmers is possible. It just never happens. If preserving indigeneous breeds is the reason to support jallikattu, that’s much more effective.

Culture

Cultural norms are discontinued or reformed all the time, to make way for social progress. Sati (the practice of a widow ending her life on her husband’s death upon social pressure to do so) and child marriage — both barbaric practices — have been ended to make way for social progress. This isn’t a strong or compelling argument. As an article in The Diplomat explains:

The monolithic entity that Tamil culture seems to have become during the progression of the debate over Jallikattu has culminated in the proponent camp decrying any and all opposition of Jallikattu as inherently anti-Tamil.

The idea that jallikattu is intrinsically tied to ‘being Tamil’ isn’t necessarily true — because culture should not be about cruelty and oppression. It should be about inclusion.

Conspiracies

Most conspiracies surrounding jallikattu are ridiculous. The idea that PETA is trying to “open the market for Western companies to advertise their cattle,” or, even more ridiculous, trying to “sell bull semen” is ridiculous. There’s no evidence whatsoever for these assertions, and none of it forms any offensive reason to allow jallikattu.

Conclusion

Jallikattu is a sport hinged upon marginalization and animal cruelty. However, it carries with it cultural intricacies most urban individuals won’t understand. The current practice of jallikattu, however, needs to be abolished — not merely by the government, but by rural community as a whole. The reinvention of the sport as something to truly uphold culture while spreading compassion without oppression is necessary.

Insofar as that is not amended, jallikattu is fundamentally the exploitation of animals for entertainment — something that Tamil culture should not be proud of. We should be ashamed of abuse of any form.

Note that none of this criticism is unique to jallikattu. It applies to all blood sports which involve animals. Spanish bullfighting, for instance, and things like dogfighting and cockfighting, are even more horrendous than such sports. Animal cruelty in the name of entertainment or culture is unjustified, because justice requires the recognition of animal rights. We ought to end cruelty for entertainment.